British dub poet, political activist with Jamaican roots, dies at 65
Benjamin Zephaniah famously rejected British honour in 2003
Benjamin Zephaniah, a British poet and political activist who drew huge inspiration from his Caribbean roots – a Jamaican mother and a Barbadian father – has died. He was 65.
Zephaniah died Thursday after being diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks ago, his family said in a statement on Instagram.
“We shared him with the world and we know many will be shocked and saddened by this news,” the family said.
Zephaniah, who was born in Birmingham in central England on April 15, 1958, was a sharp-witted and often provocative presence across British media as well as performing at political gatherings and demonstrations.
Widely recognisable from his long dreadlocks and his local accent, Zephaniah was never shy in espousing his views on racism, refugees, revolutions – and healthy eating.
The son of Barbadian postal worker and a Jamaican nurse, Zephaniah struggled in his early years as a result of dyslexia and he was kicked out of school at the age of 13, unable to read or write, before learning to do so as an adult.
In his 20s, he travelled to London, where his first book, Pen Rhythm, was published. He would subsequently write collections focusing on particular issues, including the UK legal system and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
His writing was often classified as dub poetry, which emerged in Jamaica in the 1970s combining reggae beats with a hard-hitting political message. He would also perform with the group The Benjamin Zephaniah Band, and in recent years appeared on the popular BBC television drama Peaky Blinders.
In 2003, Zephaniah rejected the offer to become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, or OBE, because of its association with the British empire and its history of slavery.
Zephaniah was a prolific children’s poet, and was a founding member of The Black Writers’ Guild, which said it is in “mourning at the loss of a deeply valued friend and a titan of British literature”.
In 2018, he was nominated for autobiography of the year at Britain’s National Book Awards for his work, The Life And Rhymes Of Benjamin Zephaniah.
Speaking that year, Zephaniah said he believed in radical changes to society with people policing themselves.
“I’m an anarchist, I believe this needs to be torn down, I believe we need to start again, I don’t believe that we need governments and the kind of models that we have,” he said. “But I’m also aware that we’re not going to achieve that now.”
During his music career, Zephaniah worked with the late Irish singer Sinead O’Connor on Empire, and with British musician Howard Jones and drummer Trevor Morais on his album Naked.
Zephaniah was also a passionate supporter and ambassador of Premier League soccer team Aston Villa, Birmingham’s most successful club.